Is science the subject at school it used to be?

“What I loved about my chemistry lessons was blowing up the lab!” If I had a penny for every time I heard this from someone who finds out that I teach chemistry, I would be able to retire now!  People’s memories of their own science education always vary, but the one constant is their enjoyment of the practical element of this practical subject. That is why I am so worried about the way science teaching in the UK seems to be heading.

Chemistry is my passion. The main reason I fell in love with it was because of the practical aspects; for a mainly kinaesthetic learner, it was perfect.  It was as a result of the inspiration and enthusiasm of my wonderful chemistry teacher, Mr Mills, that I ended up taking my degree in Chemistry.  My memories of our lessons are all so very positive; clear, concise explanations, high expectations and the space and time to experiment and discover for ourselves through plenty of practical lessons.  Ably assisted by Mrs Grey (the lab technician), Mr Mills guided us all through our O’Level and on to do A’Level.  Goodness only knows what he would think now to know that I was teaching his subject!

So, it is with a heavy heart that I read that a recent Ofsted report which warns of a large number of schools where pupils are spending their potential practical sessions taking notes.  What a complete travesty for a practical subject.

So why should this be?  Is it because constraints on the timetable for teachers to make their way through such a vast curriculum are being overshadowed by the time that it takes to set up, carry out and clear up an experiment – ‘Oh well, it’s easier just to show the students a video’ – or is it because science teachers are now so afraid of the issues which arise from Health and Safety that it is the easier option to take?  Or, is it because the GCSE examinations do not assess the practical skills of the candidates and hence the teaching staff do not see the need to thoroughly teach this vital area of science?  Whatever the answer, as a keen advocate of enhancing the subject area of experimentation which can reach to all areas of the curriculum, I feel that none of these should be used as an excuse to avoid practical sessions.

The same report goes on to discuss the lack of preparation of GCSE students for A’Level studies, and, more alarmingly than that, the lack of girls taking up the opportunities at A’Level in science. I know that this is not the case for many all-girls schools, where it is as normal for girls to take a science subject as it is an arts based subject.  This is the very beauty of the all-girls learning and teaching environment (and that is the making of a separate blog!).

However, I do not feel that the media and others always portray a positive image of scientists, when, with a more positive national strategy, on several levels this could and should change.

Giving prime-time airtime to positive scientific role models, who are cool, both male and female, would be a start.  Insisting that the curriculum is reviewed and reshaped to insist on practical work in the sciences, supporting schools to bring in relevant and exciting speakers and role models for all pupils to engage with, promoting National Science week on a grand scale, putting pupils of a young age in touch with scientific mentors from industry or the universities, pushing the crest awards throughout schools……the list goes on and so much is achievable with a little support and time.

Michael Wilshaw commented that he feared that a shortage of high-level science skills risked damaging our economy.  I believe he is right.  Without the investment of both time and energy into the practical aspects of science, we will see the numbers of students studying the sciences decline, and hence many areas of our economy, and not just those directly related, but those indirectly too, suffer.

I am encouraged by the promise of a more practically based GCSE curriculum and look forward to this, but it is in the here and now that schools need the support.  How many primary schools have science graduates who feel comfortable to teach and find age appropriate experiments for their children?

Last academic year, I had the enormous pleasure of going into my own daughter’s primary school class to allow them the opportunity to experiment. There were twenty reception children, the class teacher, my own school’s wonderful technician and me!  Let me tell you, it was an unforgettable experience from which I learnt so much about the diverse range of practical capabilities of 5 year olds, and the joy on their faces when they were able to take home the coloured slime.  It was unforgettable.  I do note that their parents were not quite as thrilled at the prospect of having to remove slime from their carpets, but, to date, I have not received any complaints.

I am so keen to encourage all children about the benefits of practical science, that regularly I will give potential pupils for my own school a practical project to complete on their own at home during the holidays.  These enquiring young minds thoroughly enjoy their challenge and always send me emails with their results (the quality of these does vary, but for me it is allowing them to experiment freely, in a safe environment).  What a joy for me!

Finally, I am proud to say, that, if OFSTED were to review the commitment to practical science at Heathfield, I know that we would get an A* as we place real importance and resources into making it accessible to the young minds we educate.  All children deserve this opportunity though and I, for one, will continue to be a vociferous supporter of the campaign to protect and enhance practical science in schools.

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